Monthly Archives: May 2014

Rain Reign

A delightful pop-up thunderstorm, whose lightning to the south put on quite the show as the storm slowly made its way across the prairie, visited last night. FINALLY.

It rained, hard enough, for about half an hour before lumbering on to the next town. This was good, as I’d only watered the plants in containers before succumbing to a severe case of the I-don’t-wannas and hoped for the best.

I got up this morning and went out, as I do almost every morning in the summer, to investigate the potential aftermath. Peony bushes always look like downed swans to me after a storm, the flowers gracefully drooping to the ground under the weight of rain. The weeds, as I’d expected, had rioted overnight. The sun was shining and the scent of the earth was heady stuff; I entertained rebellious thoughts of maybe skipping work for a garden-health day…

[The scent immediately brought me back to a very specific time in 2003, when we were living at 1005 and were being paid a visit by my friend Kristin and her family. They had been visiting relatives in St. Louis and asked if they could swing by our place on their way back to their home in New York. I said yes, of course. I had never met her in person – we had been online friends for a couple of years at that point, brought together by similar stories exchanged on the message boards at hipMama – the boards were a lifeline to many back then. Anyway, after saying yes, I was like what am I doing? What if it’s weird? What if they think we’re weird? What if it’s painfully awkward? It was awesome, of course. We had dinner and the kids engaged in a huge water balloon fight and the spouses (both tall guys named Jim) got on well. But my favorite moments were when Kristin and I visited several gardens – my small one out back, my friend Janna’s huge one down the street, and the plots out at Meadowbrook. I might have even had a plot out there that year – I can’t remember. I think Kristin was impressed with the utter fertility of the place. At any rate, it was the smell of the Meadowbrook gardens on that specific day that has stayed with me – humid air, warmed soil, the dill that ran rampant in all the garden plots every year…]

… but I sucked it up and went to work. I came home later and started tending to this.

Greens

When I planted the greens, I knew I’d be getting more than the seeds I was planting. I’m not one for neat beds, that’s for sure; calendula had lived in the bed the year before, lamb’s quarter lives EVERYWHERE in my yard, always, and I know from experience that if you let even one dill plant go to seed, you’re going to have it in unexpected places in the spring. And so it is with the greens patch this year. It smells delicious.

I did weed a huge patch of zinnias. I opened a beer and brought my radio out to help the task along. Jim came outside and chatted with me as I picked and pulled. Mattie Flicktail Lonesome settled into the garlic to observe the dogs in the yard behind us.

Garlic Cat

Mattie and her son, Teacups Nibbles Lonesome (not pictured), are quite fond, this year, of hanging out with me in the yard, just like the CSN&Y song. They’re mostly fond of rolling around on top of whatever I’ve just planted, but it’s still pretty cool to have them out there. Back in the Chicken Days, I talked to the girls incessantly while I gardened; now I mostly gruff at the cats to quit rolling around in the flowers or to stop eating the grass that inevitably makes them hurl.

Times have changed, obviously, but the calendula, dill, and lamb’s quarter still reign (and smell) supreme.

Backyard Wilderness

What I should be doing: Writing next week’s BYI Radio piece. What I’m doing instead: Enjoying a delightful night outdoors at the picnic table in the driveway at 909. Our entire lot becomes an extension of our quite small house once summer arrives, which it seems to have done. I could blog indoors, but why?

oak sprout

At the moment, the only visible and/or audible evidence of wild things in my yard are the June bugs (I think that’s what they are) flying blindly into the side of the garage. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve started paying more attention than I usually do to the creatures that share the neighborhood with me. Tales of wild things in this decidedly residential, in-town neighborhood abound:

  • A fox had the run of this area for awhile this spring, stealing several neighbors’ chickens and, I think, efficiently killing a mourning dove in my backyard – only a compact pile of feathers remained (foxes are known for carrying their prey to an undisclosed location).
  • There’s a groundhog that’s turned up one street over, I hear.
  • One night last summer I had the disquieting experience of seeing 3 animals that were not my cats – raccoons – walk past my spot at the picnic table as I sat there, a fourth nearly brushing my leg as it sauntered under the table to join its friends/relatives.
  • Opossums snurfling around our backyard are common.
  • A few weeks ago, our friend Douglas saw a coyote chase one of his cats out of the woodsy area next to his house, which backs up against a very busy Dart beverage cup plant.
  • Then there was the afternoon this spring, as I started clearing out the garden, when I noticed all the dead lacinato kale plants that had been standing about 3 feet tall when we left for spring break in March… had been eaten down to about 2 feet tall. Further investigation in the garden, followed by, um, googling various types of poop, led me to believe that, at some point, a desperately hungry (and possibly lost) deer was eating whatever it could find in the days before spring truly arrived. A DEER. It was either a deer or equally desperate rabbits taking turns piling on top of each other, with the rabbit on the top getting the dead kale. I would have loved to see either.

All these animals – in addition to the usual array of rabbits, squirrels, birds (including hawks and vultures), toads, snakes, mice, voles, bats, and the occasional chipmunk – are living with us here at 909. Some variation of them are living with you, probably, wherever you’re located. Dealing with them as garden pests and possible predators is one thing. Dealing with them as neighbors is another, to say nothing (if you’re me) of dealing with a basic, childhood-based fear of animals that are not cats or dogs. [Raccoons freak me the eff out, you guys. We had one living in our chimney a couple of years ago, and there is nothing as terrifying as sleeping peacefully with the windows open only to be awakened by the frantic screaming of raccoons fighting and/or gleefully chasing each other around your house and you’re thinking, either those are aliens or something has killed one of the cats WTF do I do?]

I’m working on that by trying to notice them and then to observe them, even the annoying squirrels and the boring old house sparrows. Reading Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s The Urban Bestiary has been a revelation (I highly recommend it), as was a “trip” to a park blocks from downtown Champaign with my friend, Rob Kanter of Environmental Almanac, where we saw a freaking muskrat going about its muskratty business in the creek (swimming upcreek, grabbing a huge wad of some beautiful green grass on the bank, then swimming downcreek back to its home, presumably to feed its family – not unlike when Jim makes a Mirabelle run on Saturday mornings, I thought). There were also an awful lot of not-very-exciting Canada geese pooping everywhere, but I didn’t care! A muskrat! In downtown Champaign! I doubt I’d have been as excited if I’d seen it in my yard, but I’ll get there.

There’ll be more about this experience in the aforementioned radio piece, which should be online by June 4. In the meantime, I’m going to do my best to co-exist and observe, but you can be damn sure I’ll also be protecting the food I’m trying to grow. There aren’t enough blackberries for all of us – at least not this this year.

DSC_0189

Simpler Times

East central Illinois is firmly into 2014’s version of spring; some days it seems like summer (it was over 90 degrees just over a week ago) and others it seems like late winter (it was 38 degrees a few nights ago, making for a chilly morning). Saturday before last, the full B-K clan (Cody was even home) were at the Illiac Music Festival in downtown Urbana, sweating it out with the hula-hoopers and everyone else. By Wednesday, we were suffering through Lilly’s soccer team’s loss to a much-loathed rival in unfortunate 45 degree/windy/rainy weather. Even Saturday was kind of crummy – chilly and clouds threatening to take over, though the farmers market was bright with spring food, including strawberries from a couple hours south of here.

But by 5 PM it had cleared off and the sun had warmed things a little and suddenly it seemed a fine night for a crawfish boil.

CrawBox

Cooked bugs

Yum

Dinner

It was a lovely evening at Douglas’ sweet abode, but having partied ourselves out at Prairie Fruits Farm, followed by some hilarity at our friends the Hxes the night before, Jim and I were in bed by 10, dreaming of a Sunday above 60 degrees. Such is middle age. If this is how it is, I don’t mind it a bit.

But. I find myself yearning for more. And less. Not necessarily the way it was for us a decade ago, when we had an 11 year-old and a 5 year-old and we were still living at 1005 and my main (and formidable) task was guiding their education – and, as it happened, my own. I’m talking about more (and less) within the framework we have now. Work (ours) and school (hers) plus soccer (theirs) and outside activities (ours) means, lately, coming home each night to a house that looks like a cat fur bomb has gone off, non-existent dinner plans for hungry people, and a garden full of plants I don’t want (AKA “weeds”). While soccer is mostly over and school is nearly out, a summer including family travel, at least one wedding to attend, team tryouts, driver’s ed, and a list of home projects as long as my arm is a bit intimidating. The house stuff really needs to happen, as we’ve lived here at 909 for nearly 10 years and a few things are finally starting to show their age. I’ve gotten right with one thing: The things keeping us occupied are things we love, so we just have to make room in all the budgets to make life work. I’ll confess: While there’s a part of me that relishes the challenge, there’s also a part of me that just wants to sleep. I need to know, guys. How do people far busier than us keep up?

Coming soon to screens and airwaves: Tim, the other half of the BYI enterprise, is finally back from a work trip to SF and we’re about to start intensive video editing work on two video episodes. Upcoming radio episodes will include musings on co-existing with urban wildlife (I’m headed out today with this guy), making food with edible flowers, and what local food means in a country-to-be-named-later. It’s the time of year I dreamed about during the polar vortices. It’s a time of… more. And for that? I’m grateful.

Jarred Awake

Spears in jars.

Spears in jars. Click to make big.

 

I meant to have a blog post all outlined and organized, the way you’re “supposed” to, but it didn’t happen because time! Is of the essence! Spring’s in. Even though it’s not yet warm enough for my liking here in central Illinois, the sun is out today and the ground is pliable after some rain earlier in the week, so I have to get into the yard with some of these plants I bought at the first farmers market of the season. A few things, though:

The Sustainable Student farm at the University of Illinois has started a vermicomposting pilot project at their place. Zack Grant, the farm’s manager (and my garlic planting guru), was nice enough to let me be there the day the worms arrived.

Zack's worms.

Zack’s worms.

 

I enjoyed hanging out with the worms (and Zack, and his assistant, Matt) so much that I wrote it into a BYIRadio piece. You can listen here.

After the worm situation, Tim and I shot what will become a BYIVideo, number to be determined, featuring my friend/neighbor Jill Miller. She’s the creative force (well, she’s all the forces, really) behind Hooey Batiks, and a fair amount of her art centers around food and gatherings and experimentation with both. We had, predictably, an awesome time. Stay tuned for more info.

BYIVideo #2 is in editing as I type. People, we gathered some excellent footage there. I love Cathe’s farm so much, god. The piece should be done in a few weeks, after some of the frenzy at work dies down and Tim returns from a work-related trip (to San Francisco, that jerk. I kid.). In the interim, I’ll be tweaking the writing…and working on music selection, thanks to our friends Automatic Empire. ILY,AE.

Lastly, Jill (mentioned above) recently told me there was a cookbook by writer Kevin West, Saving the Season, that I had to get. Jill has hundreds of cookbooks – and she reads them all – so her recs are trustworthy. I have too many cookbooks, and the last thing I really needed was to buy another one, especially about food preservation (which this one was). I love the concept of food preservation much more than the execution because, MY GOD, it’s so often presented as being so EASY with this smuggish veneer of utter fussiness underneath the writing, plus the recipes, in my experience, have never been that great. [Note: Paul Virant’s beautiful book, The Preservation Kitchen, is excepted from all of this, but it’s intimidated me from day one. I have more guts now to try stuff now, for reasons I’ll explain in a second, and his book remains one of my favorites. I talk to him about food preservation here.] ANYWAY. What’s beautiful about West’s book is how relatable it is. He’s just a guy who came home from the farmers market with too many strawberries one day and was like, I need to make some jam, and then proceeded to fail at it. The result of that failure is the book. The narrative was so great and everything so simple and attractive, I decided, damn it, I’m pickling some asparagus. The results of my attempt are pictured above. I wrote the experience into a BYIRadio piece, too. Here it is, if you’d like to listen.

OK. If you’ll excuse me, I have weeds to pull, plants to plant, and more asparagus to pickle, oh yes, thanks to my asparagus patch and Tomahnous Farm!